WITH EVERY BREATH (RIVER BEND SERIES, BOOK 1)

Jaden Miller had one plan when she left her hometown, and it was simple—never return. She has her dream job, her freedom, and miles separating her from a past she needed to outrun. Only one thing could make her return to River Bend, and that’s her best friend on the verge of a breakdown.

From the moment Cole Brooks realized he married the wrong woman, he’d done his best to not let fantasies of the one who got away haunt him. Now that his marriage is over, and Jaden’s back in town, is the universe giving him a second chance?

Jaden isn’t about to let her guard down around the man who broke her heart, but Cole won’t give up until she admits how perfect they would be together.

 

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Jaden left her small hometown behind without even a glance in her rearview mirror. When she hears the stress in the voice of her best friend, Mia, she goes home for a visit. If she can avoid the mother she hasn’t spoken to in years as well as Mia’s brother, Cole, who broke her heart (or did she break his?) she’ll consider the visit home a success.

EXCERPT

CHAPTER SIX

“Did you hear that?” Hillary’s head cocked. Her eyes darted to the trees bathed in shadow on the lake’s shore.

The sun had set an hour ago, and the night sky was alit with stars. The Brooks’ cabin sat nearby in a freshly mowed clearing, the kitchen light inside shining through the open screen door. Across the lake, a neighbor’s cabin sat empty. “I didn’t hear anything,” Jaden responded. Nothing but the leaves rustling in the breeze.

“There’s something out there.” Hillary scooted closer to her on the weathered dock. They sat on the edge, their legs hanging over so their toes grazed the lake’s surface.

Jaden set the half-eaten bag of cheddar popcorn behind her and propped it against the cooler full of beer. “I don’t think—”

“Did you see that?” Hillary’s voice raised several notches, verging on shrill.

Jaden froze, her hands clutched along the edge of the dock. She squinted into the dark. “See what?”

“Something moved over there.” She pointed at the grove of trees near a little shed. The old gray weathered wood looked yellow under the glow of the pale yard lamp.

“It’s probably just a ’coon.”

“You think?”

“Yeah. Or a rabbit.” Something crashed in the brush, and they both jumped to their feet. The snap of branches sent a chill up Jaden’s spine.

Hillary clung to Jaden’s arm in a vise-like grip. “What the hell was that?”

Jaden’s heart raced. “I have no freakin’ clue.”

She yanked at the hem of Jaden’s tank top. “I told you there’s something out there!”

“Maybe we should get to the house.” The cicadas muffled Jaden’s whisper. Was it her imagination or had they gotten louder, like a crescendo to a tragic opera? Her skin prickled, and the feeling of being watched sent goose-bumps over her arms.

“Yeah, the house sounds good.” But her eyes were on her car, even further away than the cabin, and much too close to whatever was out there in the trees.

“It’s probably just an animal.” The solitude of the lake had never bothered her. She’d spent most of her summers out here with Mia’s family, but Hillary’s creative imagination for all things lurking in the dark scraped at Jaden’s calm.

“A couple of weeks ago some farmers came in for breakfast, and one of them mentioned something’s been killing his cattle in a pasture near here.”

Jaden whipped her head to shoot Hillary an accusatory stare. “You’re kidding.”

Hillary gave her head a quick shake, her eyes wide.

“Don’t you think you should have mentioned this before we came out here? Alone?” She raised her beer to her lips with a shaky hand. Maybe another drink would calm her nerves. After she swallowed, she said, “So what did he think the something was?”

“He didn’t know. But I guess someone else who farms near the ravine—”

“Wait, you mean Pike’s Ridge, that area? Because that’s only a couple of miles from here.” Close enough to make Jaden’s elbows numb.

“Yeah. But no one’s seen anything. Well, except that other farmer, who said he saw something shoot out of a cornfield, right in front of him on the dirt road, so fast it was just a blur.” Hilary’s voice had grown strangled, as if she hadn’t taken a breath once while talking.

“How big?”

“Like, huge. And black.”

Jaden pinched her eyelids together. “We could be on Mia’s patio right now in town where it’s safe.”

“This was your idea, remember? And I thought it would be more fun out here.” Hillary gazed around them to the blackness stretching on and on and on.

“You thought it would be fun to get drunk and eaten by the chupacabra?” She wasn’t sure why the word popped into her head. They were only about five miles from town, which seemed light years with something creepy lurking in the bushes.

“It’s not a chupacabra.”

Jaden cocked her head at the certainty in her voice. “How do you know?”

“Because a chupacabra isn’t big enough.”

“Great. That’s wonderful news.” Jaden chewed on her lip. “Why don’t we have a cellphone right now?” The question was more a lecture for herself. Jaden’s cell phone was on the nightstand, where she left it to get away from checking work emails.

“Because mine died, and we were too lazy to go plug it in.”

Jaden broke into song, “Isn’t it ironic, don’t ‘ya think?”

Hillary’s brows knitted together. “This is not the time.”

“It’s not the time to freak out, either.” She sounded a lot calmer than she felt, what with her stomach wedged into her throat and all. “Okay, on the count of three we’re going to make a run for the cabin.”

“You better not leave me behind.”

Jaden glanced at her. “I wouldn’t do that.”

“I’ve seen enough scary movies to know the chubby friend always gets whacked first.”

Jaden tilted her head skyward and blew out a breath. “No one is getting whacked.” At least I hope not.

Hillary poked her in the side. “I mean it. I will haunt your ass forever if I die.”

Jaden swatted her finger away. “I’m not going to leave you to die. I swear.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t know why I let you talk me into drinking so much. We’re too old for drinking games.” She glanced to the trees again. “You know I’m a lightweight.”

“I can’t help it if you suck at beer pong,” Hillary said. “We should run now, right?”

“Right. And then we’ll call someone when we get inside. Just in case.” Cole popped into her mind. She glanced over at Hillary, who still had a handful of Jaden’s tank top. “But it’s probably nothing. Just a deer.”

Hillary’s eye glimmered with hope. “A deer. Yeah, I bet that’s what it is.”

“Exactly.” The noises, whatever they were, had stopped, but the silence was more eerie than comforting. “But let’s run to the cabin anyway. Just to be safe.”

“Right.” Hillary slowly crouched down, a wary eye on the trees.

“What are you doing?” Jaden pursed her lips—it was hard to split her attention between Hillary and the trees in the opposite direction.

“I’m grabbing us a couple of beers.”

Jaden cocked her head. “Um?

“If we’re going to be stuck in there until someone comes to rescue us, we should have beer.” She flipped the lid of the cooler open and dug into the ice.

Jaden let her logic roll around in her head for a moment. “Yeah, okay, good idea.” Though she doubted if they were trapped inside with some kind of menacing creature scratching at the door, that they’d have much interest in beer, or anything at all.

Hillary stood and shoved a cold beer into Jaden’s hand. Now she had two beers—one half empty, the other freezing cold. How would she run with an open beer?

Jaden set the open can on top of the cooler. “I think if we—”

A blood curdling shriek pierced the night, and Hillary slammed against Jaden.

She didn’t have time to process, it all happened too fast.

The heel of her foot teetered on the edge of the dock, and her arms flailed out in an attempt to catch her balance. She grabbed for Hillary, hoping to stop her fall, but it was too late. Hillary’s scream came out strangled, and they both went down, falling backward into the lake.

The cold water startled her, then closed over her head, and everything went black. She curled her body inward, then stretched her feet downward until her toes met the muddy lake bottom. Pushing against the ground, she sprang up and broke the surface of the water. She gasped and sucked in a breath.

She heard laughter and swiped back the heavy wet hair hanging over her eyes. Hillary stood beside her in the waist deep water, her jaw clenched and her eyes squinted in fury.

“What the hell, Trey Thompson,” Hillary shook her fist at the man smiling on the dock. “When I get out of here, I’m going to kill you.”

Trey didn’t seem the least worried about the death threat. “You skinny dipping down there, Hills?”

She waded to the dock and raised her hands. “Get me out of here, you ass.”

He squatted down and lifted her as easily as if she were a sack of groceries. He set her down and a puddle of water formed around her feet. “Hey, I didn’t know you’d be so jumpy.”

Hillary punched him, and he grabbed his chest with a laugh.

“Jeez, ouch,” he said, sounding wounded.

“What are you doing here?” Hillary snapped. She pulled at her clinging tank top. “I told you specifically that you weren’t invited.”

Trey gestured behind him. “But we brought you girls a gift. That chocolate frothy stuff you’re always taking shots of at the bar.”

Jaden noticed Cole for the first time, standing on the dock, one hand holding a slim brown paper bag with the liquor inside, the other shoved in his jeans pocket. His crooked smile was in place on the lips she hadn’t stopped thinking about since driving into town.

“I can’t believe you let him do that,” Hillary said.

Cole’s gaze moved from Jaden to Hillary.

“You know I can’t control him,” he said with a chuckle. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and handed Hillary the paper bag. “You kicking us out now?”

Hillary stared at the bottle for a moment, then took it from him. “You can stay if you start a fire. I’m freezing.”

Trey grinned down at her ample chest. “Yeah, I see that.”

Hillary shoved past him, dripping water down the dock. “Help Jaden out of the water,” she called over her shoulder.

Trey followed Hillary down the dock. “Cole can do that. I’m going to light your fire, baby.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Hillary huffed.

Their conversation faded to the background, because Jaden’s focus was zoned in a gaze too hot for her to concentrate on anything else. Cole crouched at the edge of the dock, his eyes on the white tank clinging to her breasts straining against the bikini she’d borrowed from Mia.

“You look a little wet there, Jelly Bean.” The glint in his eyes made her feel wicked and sexy in the moonlight.

“Funny.” She wasn’t supposed to feel this rush of adrenaline at the sight of him—she’d given herself the keep-your-distance lecture last night. It didn’t matter, though. Her body rebelled, not at all interested in cooperating with logic. “Help me out.”

He reached out and took her lifted hands, then rocked back on his heels to pull her out.

She tugged the corner of her lip into her mouth, but couldn’t suppress the smile as she tightened her grip and pulled with all her strength. His eyes widened just before he fell forward and hit the water with a slap. She lost the battle with her smile and broke into a full out grin. He broke the surface beside her, his gray T-shirt clinging to his chest and the six-pack she knew would be there. His dark hair was plastered to his forehead, and he ran his hands back over it.

“That wasn’t very nice.” His eyes glimmered in the moonlight, and despite her brain setting off alarm bells, she didn’t move away.

“Neither was scaring us.” Step away! her brain warned, but her body liked it right where it was. The butterflies of anticipation went haywire in her stomach.

His smile was devilish, gorgeous, and dangerous. “All I did was break some branches.”

“All I did was give you a little tug.”

“And now here we are.” His gaze turned hot—or maybe it was her imagination. Or maybe she was hot. He came closer.

And she didn’t move. Or speak. It was as if she’d swallowed her tongue. Which wasn’t fair at all. After all these years, he still had the ability to make her feel unsteady. Why should he get to make her feel like this? Like some kid with a crush and no chance? She was a woman, damn it. And you are immune to Cole Brooks.

Except she didn’t feel immune. Her body remembered the way he felt all those years ago, and wanted to feel him again.

The warmth buzzing through her was familiar and alluring, like the scent of his cologne. Would it always be this way with him? Goosebumps splayed across her skin even though her insides were far from cold. Did he know how fast her heart beat?

Being this close to him without touching was torture.

And God, he smelled good. Even her lips remembered the way his mouth felt, and she craved the taste of him on her tongue. Despite her hesitation, she drifted closer still until there was nothing between them but a sliver of water and wet clothes. Something changed—like an electrical current crackling between them. His eyes turned to liquid heat, and there was no turning back.

“Jaden.” His voice was husky with an underlying question—did she want this?

She shouldn’t. The right thing—the safe thing— to do was to push him away.

One kiss, the daredevil inside whispered. What would one kiss hurt? Closure, the voice said.

There’d never been a good-bye. No last kiss, nothing but memories of the way his arms around her and his lips on hers had felt. Missing him had kept her awake for too many nights.

But she had to believe this loss of control wasn’t about him, and more to do with the fact she hadn’t been kissed in so long, she’d forgotten how amazing a man’s lips felt. Especially Cole’s. He was too damn sexy for his own good. Of course she was attracted to him—she’d have to have no pulse to not be. Her body wanted him—nothing more.

One kiss, the voice whispered again. Just one.

She raised to her toes and pressed into him, searched out his mouth, ached for his arms to surround her. The moment their lips met, a sigh escaped her. This…

His lips tasted so damn good, just as she remembered. He was just as she remembered. His mouth lingered against her bottom lip before he shifted for more. The moment his tongue touched hers, her body was an explosion of sensation. She worried her heart wouldn’t stop racing. What would it be like to have every bit of him surrounding her, inside her? She shivered, then wished she could get even closer, because letting go was not an option.

He cupped her head with his hand, her wet, tangled hair entwined in his long fingers. His other hand brushed along her side to the small of her back before he reached down to cup her butt. Her legs lifted to wrap around his waist, her body almost weightless in the water. Their lips moved slow and sensuous together in a dance as old as time, and she gripped her hands behind his neck, holding on.

Someone cleared their throat, and Jaden crashed back down to reality. They weren’t alone. She wanted to care, but found she didn’t. It was Cole who broke away. She blinked up at him, torn between annoyance at whoever had interrupted and annoyance with Cole for being able to break a spell she couldn’t.

“You two sex fiends going to join us?” Trey asked. He stood on the dock with the cooler of beer in his hands and an amused smirk on his lips.

“Get lost,” Cole growled.

Trey shrugged with a chuckle. “Okay, but if Hills beats me up, I’m blaming you two animals.”

He walked away, and an awkward silence ensued.

“Hey.” Cole’s gaze roamed her face.

She smoothed her hair back, and willed her pulse to calm. “That was… unexpected.”

His lips twitched with a smile. “I’d say.”

“Guess we should go break the kids up before someone gets hurt.” She turned her back to him and waded to the dock.

“So that’s it?”

“Yeah, I guess it is.” She’d taken the easy way out, but she wasn’t about to over analyze what just happened. In fact, she wondered if she should pretend it hadn’t. “Just needed to get that out of my system, is all.”

His lips quirked. “So what you’re saying is I’m in your system.”

She rolled her eyes but her stupid lips ached to smile. “No. I’m saying you were sort of a little bit in my system. And now you’re not. At all.”

“If you say so.” Amusement edged his voice, which she chose to ignore. His hands wrapped around her waist; his fingers splayed against her stomach in a firm hold and she sucked in a ragged breath. He leaned in, dropped a soft, alluring kiss to her neck, and whispered just under her ear. “I’m going to wear you down, Jaden.”

She shivered from all the hot images flashing through her mind with the promise.

Didn’t he know? He was already halfway there.